In the Swing of Summer
When we’ve been away from Martina Franca for any period of time, we try to get ourselves to the weekly open-air market as soon as we can. Not only do we need to stock up on whatever looks especially gorgeous in the fruit and vegetable department, but meandering through the stalls and listening to the vendors confirms that we’re really home.
Although we have a 20 year history here, tt’s been a few years now that we’ve been making regular, weekly rambles through the market. We’ve gotten to know the best vendors, the ones to avoid and the characters whose exhortations to buy their merchandise make us laugh the most. We’re so besotted with it all that we’ve even acquired one of those plaid wheelie shopping baskets all the grannies carry. And each week we fill that basket to the brim, every hopeful that our reach won’t exceed our grasp.
In between our deliberations, we stop to chat with friends, telling the same stories about our time away a half a dozen times before we’ve walked ten yards. Local news is shared and dissected; there is no shortage of opinion here. Sometimes we’ll join a friend for an espresso at a nearby bar, but we are reminded that coffee, like everything else, is rigidly seasonal. In our absence, the town has moved on to its officially sanctioned summertime caffeine delivery system: caffe ghiacciato or, for thrill seekers, granita di caffe.
Social obligations fulfilled, we roll our way home every week, laden with the items we need and everything else that caught our collective eye. Today’s bounty stretched to include plants for our balconies’ window baskets since we’ve been coerced into participating in Martina Franca’s Barocco in Fiore competition (more about this later). But nothing makes us happier than the market’s vegetables right now. Shiny, fire engine red piennolo tomatoes still on the vine; firm, plump eggplants as deeply purple as the twilight summer sky; mounds of thin green beans; and monstrous red and yellow peppers are just some of this week’s finds. The walk home is spent talking about how we’ll prepare them all, which is perhaps the greatest pleasure of all.
This morning, after we climbed the ridiculously steep stone stairs that lead to our kitchen, our arms cradling the day’s haul, I reached into the market basket and found the tomatoes. During the winter here, we miss tomatoes most of all, so we’re a little giddy about them when they make their summer debut. Not surprisingly, today’s lunch featured the pomodori a piennolo we found earlier, with a little eggplant, basil and cacioricotta embellishment.
You should make this pasta with the best tomatoes you can find, the ones with a pronounced, tomato-y perfume and sweet, plump flesh. Although the lengthy recipe sounds time-consuming and even a little fiddly, the sauce is a snap to put together and endlessly versatile. No eggplant? No problem. The sauce is gorgeous without it. Excessive amount of zucchini on hand? Prepare them the same way you prepare the eggplant to create a sauce with a different, slightly nutty dimension. No cacioricotta? Parmigiano is fine, as is a little crumbled ricotta salata. For the pasta, we used Benedetto Cavalieri’s extra-long spaghetti, this time made from organic whole wheat. It’s a revelation if you’ve tried and rejected other whole-wheat pasta brands. Serve this pasta with an uncomplicated salad—maybe a little butter lettuce, arugula leaves and cucumber slices with a fruity extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice—and revel in your own vegetable bounty.
Spaghetti ai Pomodori e Melanzane—Spaghetti with Tomato and Eggplant Sauce
Extra virgin olive oil
1 whole, peeled garlic clove
Kosher or sea salt
1 lb. ripe tomatoes
1 medium eggplant (or use two small ones)
8-10 fresh basil leaves
A few sprigs of fresh marjoram or oregano (optional)
1 lb. (500 grams) high quality, imported Italian spaghetti (I used Benedetto Cavalieri’s organic, whole-wheat pasta, but it’s the only brand of pasta integrale I buy; substitute another artisanal pasta if you can’t find it)
Grated fresh cacioricotta (fresh, seasonal ricotta cheese made from cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk or a combination of these); use fresh parmigiano or ricotta salata if you can’t find cacioricotta. Note: vegans can leave out the cheese; it won’t affect the amazing flavor of this dish.
Preheat the oven to 375-400 degrees.
Float a generous quantity of high quality extra virgin olive oil in a sauté pan. Don’t skimp here; you want the pan to be well coated, with a depth of about 1/4 inch. Slightly crush a garlic clove to peel its papery skin, then drop the slightly crushed whole clove in the sauté pan with the olive oil. Heat the olive oil gently to allow the garlic clove to simmer very, very slightly. Continue simmering until the garlic clove turns the very faintest golden color. Don’t allow it to do this quickly and don’t let it brown. If that happens, you’ll need to start over (sadly).
While the garlic is very gently simmering, slice the eggplant into 1/2-inch rounds crosswise. Place each round flat on the cutting board and chop them into 1/2-inch square pieces. Place the cubes in a bowl and pour a generous quantity of olive oil over the cubes. Sprinkle them with kosher or sea salt (half a teaspoon?) and mix them well with your hands to coat all of the cubes. The eggplant will absorb the olive oil, so don’t worry if the cubes seem dry. Still, be generous with the olive oil; its flavor contributes considerably to the roasted eggplant.
Spread the eggplant cubes on a non-stick baking pan with low sides, making sure that the cubes are not touching one another. Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and roast the eggplant for approximately 30-35 minutes. When the cubes have shrunken in size and are uniformly deeply golden, even a little darker than that, remove them from the oven and reserve. You may need to check them from time to time, stirring with a metal spatula to loosen them, but redistributing them in the pan so they aren’t touching one another. If your oven doesn’t provide uniform heat, turn the pan around midway through the roasting time to ensure even roasting.
While the eggplant is roasting and the garlic is gently simmering in the olive oil, wash the tomatoes and chop them into 1-inch pieces. If they’re small, cut them in half or quarter them. When the garlic is golden, add the chopped tomatoes to the olive oil and garlic, sprinkling them with kosher or sea salt to taste (perhaps half a teaspoon?). Increase the heat to medium to bring the tomatoes to a lively simmer and cover the pan.
Fill a large pasta pot with water and bring it to a boil. When the tomatoes have been simmering, covered, for about 10-15 minutes, remove the cover and continue to simmer so that the tomatoes release their juices and start to lose their structure, almost dissolving into themselves. Tear or julienne the basil leaves and add them to the sauce. If you’re using marjoram or oregano, use your fingers to remove their leaves from their stalks and add them to the sauce, too. At this point, you could pass the tomatoes through the medium disk of a food mill, but it is absolutely not necessary. We like the fiber and texture provided by the skins for this dish and never puree them for this dish, but it’s totally up to you. Continue to simmer the tomatoes until the sauce has arrived at the consistency you like. Turn off the heat, but keep the sauce warm by covering it with a lid.
When the pasta water is boiling, add a generous scoop of kosher or sea salt to the water. Don’t worry about adding too much salt; the water should taste like the sea in order for the pasta to be appropriately seasoned. Throw the spaghetti into the water and stir the pot vigorously with a wooden spoon to make sure the spaghetti doesn’t stick together. This should be repeated often in the first 2-3 minutes of cooking the spaghetti. If necessary, cover the pot leaving an opening for steam until the water returns to the boil.
Start tasting the spaghetti after 5 minutes (longer for whole wheat pasta). The pasta will continue to cook while you drain it and add it to the sauce, so keep this in mind and be prepared to drain the pasta sooner than you think. A perfectly cooked spaghetto should offer a little resistant when you bite it, but it should be pliable, too. Before you drain the spaghetti, use a cup to remove some of the pasta water to use in the sauce later.
Drain the pasta into a colander, give the colander a shake and transfer the spaghetti immediately to the sauté pan where the sauce is waiting. Add the roasted eggplant cubes to the spaghetti and tomato sauce in the sauté pan. Using tongs or a spaghetti spider, gently incorporates the sauce, eggplant and the spaghetti. If the sauce seems even a little dry, add some of the reserved, starchy pasta water, which serves to amalgamate the pasta beautifully, creating a creamy sauce that clings to the pasta.
Serve your spaghetti immediately in warmed pasta bowls, grating a thin veil of cacioricotta, parmigiano or ricotta salata over the top using a microplane or another cheese grater with fine openings.
Makes 6 first course or 4 main course servings.